Teacher controversy simmers

A complaint filed against a local high school math teacher has sent shock waves through La Cañada Flintridge, with some students rallying in her defense and all four school board candidates criticizing the public nature of the accusation.

La Cañada school board member Cindy Wilcox filed a formal complaint in June alleging that La Cañada High School math teacher Gabrielle Leko addressed a ninth-grade geometry student as “Jew boy,” and that she regularly discriminated against female students, among other offenses.

In the week since Wilcox’s complaint became public — it was originally reported by the news website La Cañada Flintridge Patch — numerous students have come forward in her defense. Several said that they suspected the grievance stems from overzealous parents whose children underperformed in the math teacher’s class. Others volunteered that they have never seen Leko behave in a malicious manner.

“Mrs. Leko is a really nice person, and if you ever saw her teach, you would never believe that she would ever say something like “Jew boy” out of hatred,” said La Cañada High School student Garrett Apel, who is currently taking a class from Leko. “She’ll make jokes once in a while, but they’re always appropriate.”

When asked about the controversy during a forum Monday, school board candidates largely skirted the issue, saying that it should not be addressed publicly.

“This is not something that should have been brought into the court of public opinion,” school board candidate Ellen Multari said. “It should have been dealt with in the proper channels. Now we are all speculating as to what happened.”

But Wilcox’s complaint has added momentum to a community discussion about board policies regarding complaints and teacher evaluations.

“It might be a good time for the board and staff to reconsider some of the policies laid out in the uniform complaint procedures,” La Cañada Unified parent James Stoker said at the school board meeting Tuesday. “In particular, I noticed in those procedures no promise of protection for either the parents or the students from negative consequences arising from filing a complaint.”

The written complaint against Leko has not been made public. But in interviews Wilcox said that the “Jew boy” comment was made during a ninth-grade honors geometry class sometime last year, adding that multiple families have confirmed the incident.

“I have been approached by the parents of the children who were observers and they were very uncomfortable watching this,” Wilcox said. “They felt everyone was forced to laugh and play along to a classroom bully. And the classroom bully was the only adult in the room.”

Originally, no family was willing to come forward and file a complaint themselves out of fear of retribution, Wilcox said. But with her own complaint now public, she expects others might be emboldened.

It at least has ignited conversations within families, she added.

“Several people have said for the first time that they are talking to their children,” Wilcox said. “It hadn’t occurred to them to talk to them about ethnic and racial slurs.”

Leko did not respond to requests for comment for this story, although she did respond to the complaint in writing as dictated by district procedure.

Her written response was unsatisfactory, said Wilcox, adding that Leko should be dismissed. A meeting between the two parties could take place as early as next week.

Supt. Wendy Sinnette said Wednesday that the Anti-Defamation League has conducted anti-bias and cyber bullying training at La Cañada schools in the past and once again has offered its assistance.

“I would reiterate that the district takes the allegations very seriously and is taking all the necessary and appropriate steps to investigate the matter fully,” Sinnette said. “But again, as fact-finding proceeds, we urge that the parents and community keep an open mind until the review process is completed.”

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